The Blissful Foreign Tongue

Jordan’s airwaves are not occupied wholly by Arabic. English, too, makes regular appearances. Arabic-speaking hosts might pepper their speech with words or phrases in English when they want to sound sophisticated, or can’t find the proper word in Arabic, or sometimes when the Arabic equivalent is potentially obscure enough that their audiences might be more familiar with the English word (then they would usually say them both, just in case).

But there are also radio stations that have adopted English wholesale, as their prime medium of communication. Language is their most visible distinguishing feature, though the difference also shines through elsewhere: in programme structuring, the hosts’ communicative strategies, the kind of music that is chosen and the way it’s treated, and so on. All in all, English-language radio makes for a properly distinct format in Jordan (along with at least two others: ‘standard’ Arabic-language radio, and ‘Islamic’ stations).

What kind of listener is this format designed for? Is it merely an audience-drawing ploy to have your programmes in a high-prestige foreign language – or are there also other consequences to the specific kind of communicative style cultivated by English broadcasting? I’ll be considering the case of one particular radio station – Bliss – to see if its broadcasts can offer some insight.

Rise to Shine

Radio Bliss, the most recent addition to Jordan’s English-language radio field, was founded in 2013 by the armed forces (Radio Hala is billed as its “sister” station) and joined an already budding scene featuring stations with snappy names such as Play, Spin and Beat – all with English-speaking presenters and music from Euro-American pop playlists.

bliss twitter screencap

(Screenshot of Bliss Radio’s Twitter profile. Source: Bliss 104.3 Twitter profile webpage. Accessed 18 February 2015. LINK)

Bliss’s programming schedule doesn’t hide its bias towards the commuter crowd. There are only two ‘hosted’ weekday programmes – the morning programme, “Rise N Shine,” running from 7:00 to 10:00, and the afternoon “Joy Ride” from 15:00 to 18:00 – each with a pair of young presenters (one female, one male) that run the show in pretty much perfect American-accented English. Some stations apparently hire native English speakers; Bliss boasts local talent – even as, apart from the hosts’ names and their clearly native pronunciations of Arabic words, it’s easy to assume otherwise.

They are also very active on Twitter. There are quizzes; giveaways; questions to listeners, whose answers are then retweeted, and constant encouragements to send in music requests.

This social media focus is hardly unusual, compared to other radio stations in Jordan. But the English-language format seems to carry its own impositions. It might just be the adoption of broadcasting styles familiar from other media environments, but it is notable that Bliss’s programmes seem to be centered much more firmly on the music. Sure, the named presenters are there – to carry the brand, as it were – but they rarely interrupt the tracks as they are played to read out listeners’ messages, or hum to the tune or comment on it, as Arabic-language hosts are wont to do. Hosts might comment on what’s coming up on the playlists – often humorously, or in a way designed to reveal their personal preferences and so convey intimacy without ever giving away too many concrete private details – but they do so in their own stretches of ‘host-talk,’ clearly bounded and distributed in between sets of songs played in whole from beginning to end. For the most part, the music is left undisturbed.

(The “Rise N Shine” hosts, Ban Barkawi and Tamer Gar, with one of their studio guests. From Radio Bliss’s Twitter account)

To Whoever Might Understand

The linguistic borders, though tightly sealed, do allow for some leakage. Most of Bliss’s phone and Twitter interlocutors appear to be Jordanians. The advertisements – what few there are, on this particular stations – are in Arabic. The presenters’ chat also includes what are clearly “insider” signals (in sociolinguo-speak, “in-group markers”) when they occasionally come up with words or phrases in colloquial Arabic: speaking, for example, about problems with a taHwiile (“detour”) at a busy Ammani intersection – see, again, the car-commuting assumption here – or debate on the possible effects of the عاصفه ثلجيه جنى, “Snowstorm Jana” (as the “Joy Ride”‘s presenters did on 18 February, just before the new cold front was due to hit the Kingdom).

Bliss’s target audience might prefer their media in English, but the assumption here is that they also know Arabic: a class of educated, urban (likely West-Amman-dwelling) Jordanians who know enough of the foreign language to understand it, and participate in conversations in it. They might resemble the station’s hip young presenters in other ways as well – like comportment, or outfits, all meaning-heavy elements of styles that stand for an individual’s particular (real, or desired) social position. The programming schedule suggests that the only time it makes sense to target them is when they’re in their cars, commuting from and to their jobs. For proof of a “bubble” of a foreign-oriented stratum living apart and above from the rest of Jordan, look no further.

And it’s precisely this ‘bubbling’ tendency that’s problematic here, for those hopeful that English-language media could prove redemptive, with its putative potential to bring in “Western” values and break the taboos of Jordan’s “conservative” society. Bliss’s programming isn’t particularly socially or politically subversive in any case – which you might expect, given its founders and owners. But even with more courageous content, English media simply can’t properly challenge the status quo as long as it draws its linguistic borders in the way it does. Playing only English-language music, and having their hosts speak in English alone, prioritizes and commodifies the foreign language in the service of bilinguals, at the exclusion of those who don’t know it – and, as a result, only perpetuates existing social divisions and stereotypes.

Though going on 20 years now, Niloofar Haeri’s remarks on foreign-language competence among Arabic speakers are still relevant. Jordan is, of course, a different can of worms than Haeri’s Egypt, but the basic insights still apply. Access to a foreign language – more precisely, the ability to speak that language competently, to the extent that one is able to listen to an all-English radio station and participate in its various channels of communication – is a minority, perhaps ‘elite,’ pastime that automatically marginalizes enormous swathes of Jordan’s population. All the more problematic that format choice itself seems to be highly exclusive. Your station is either all-English, or all-Arabic. There is no middle ground.

What would be really subversive, then, at least as far as format is concerned, would be a channel combining – mixing and matching, freely, carelessly – English- and Arabic-language music and programming in a way that would, potentially, include all. Accepting of both languages, and both ‘worlds’ they are often assumed to signify, across class and education and (life)style boundaries. As it seems now, though, the nature of the contemporary media industry – with its deep-rooted convictions regarding marketing, and promotion, the audience-carving principles of format radio – might make this a distant hope indeed.

The Blissful Foreign Tongue

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